Women being forced to wear high heels at work has been the subject of a report by a parliamentary committee. The committee looked at whether it was illegal for an employer to require its female staff to wear high heels. The report, which was published last week, said that a dress code of having to wear high heels was already unlawful, and that “discriminatory dress codes remain widespread”. It said that it was “clear that the existing law is not yet fully effective in protecting employees from discrimination at work”. This has led to much debate in the press and social media, particularly after Piers Morgan while conducting an interview on television in relation to the report said that he “likes women to wear heels at work”. But what does all this mean for employers?
Many employers impose dress codes or appearance requirements on employees. Often this is to reflect the image of the business, or for health and safety reasons. While dress codes can be lawful, employers have to be careful that their requirements don’t amount to unlawful discrimination. Such discrimination may not just be because of sex, but can also be because of any of the other protected characteristics, including religion, disability, or gender reassignment.
Looking at sex discrimination, treating a woman less favourably than a man in the same circumstances is direct sex discrimination. However, just because dress codes are different for men and women doesn’t mean that there is sex discrimination. If the dress code applies a conventional standard of appearance and taken as a whole, neither men nor women are treated less favourably, then it’s not sex discrimination. But the dress code must be applied consistently between men and women – smart work attire doesn’t mean heels and makeup for women.
The parliamentary report said that relationship between what is discrimination and workplace dress codes is not understood by many employers. While the Government expects employers to find out what their legal obligations are and to comply with the law, the report says that this is not working. It says that the Government must do more to help employers and employees understand the law on discrimination in the workplace. Requiring a woman to wear heels is discrimination, and may also breach an employer’s duty of care for the health of its employees – wearing heels for long periods each day can cause pain and long-term damage.
As an employer, you should think carefully about any dress code that you introduce and why your dress code is important and necessary. Both Acas and the Equality and Human Rights Commission have guidance on dress codes. Where you have a dress code, you should make sure that it is applied evenly to all employees, is not overly prescriptive for one sex and not the other, and takes account of religion, beliefs and disabilities. If you are flexible, there is less likely to be an issue. If you are asked to make an exception to your dress code, consider this properly. Look at both sides of the argument – yours and the employee’s – carefully before you refuse the request. If you can still achieve your objective while allowing the exception, it may be discrimination to refuse it.